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Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

The New Campus Puritanism

Free speech, safe spaces, and the limits of tolerance

Ira Wells

University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus

Peter MacKinnon

University of Toronto Press

168 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781487503703

Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration

Teresa M. Bejan

Harvard University Press

288 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780674545496

Until recently, it was possible to assume that the so-called “campus free speech” debate was a distinctly American phenomenon—the product, perhaps, of a more divisive and toxic political culture. The stories emerging from U.S. campuses, about protests to rename university buildings, insensitive Halloween costumes, administrators being shouted down in the streets—plus the familiar chorus of right-wing pundits sounding the free-speech alarms—sounded like dispatches from an alternate universe. It wasn’t that Canadian students didn’t care about the “problematic” speakers occasionally sponsored by the local chapter of the men’s rights movement. It’s just that they cared more about what was on the midterm.

Most still do. Outside my office at the University of Toronto, prospective students and their parents are ambling through the quad in serene contemplation of the next four years. The vast majority who enrol will graduate without being impacted by this “crisis” that is supposedly engulfing our campuses. As of this writing, the most popular story on The Varsity, the U of T student newspaper, is about a hot dog stand that caught fire in front of the library.

Still, there’s no denying that Canada’s own debates over campus free speech, and its close cousin “safe spaces,” have blown up over the past few years. In February, Acadia University launched an investigation into psychology professor Rick Mehta following student complaints about alleged racism, sexism, and transphobia in his teaching and on his social media accounts. Last October, the University of Toronto historian Michael Marrus resigned as a senior fellow of Massey College after making an inappropriate joke about the “master” of Massey College to a black student. Michael Persinger, a Laurentian professor, was removed from his introductory psychology course for asking students to sign a statement of understanding indicating that he used profanity for pedagogical reasons in the classroom. A raft of senior university administrators—including John Montalbano, UBC’s chair of the board of governors, Henry Parada, director of Ryerson University’s school of social work, and, last year, Andrew Potter, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada—were shuffled out of those positions after angering interest groups.

Students, too, have felt the squeeze. There was Masuma Khan, the Dalhousie student who ran afoul of the university’s Senate Discipline Committee for writing “white fragility can kiss my ass” in a Facebook post. Last October, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) refused to renew the pro-life Students for Life group as a campus club, on the grounds that the SFUO is a pro-choice organization. And visiting speakers often bring unwelcome controversy. In March, a University of Victoria event featuring the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer was disrupted by protesters, while a Faith Goldy speech at Wilfrid Laurier University was cancelled after a fire alarm was pulled.

Cécile Gariépy

In light of these tactics, some commentators have argued that today’s campus activism looks less like 1960s-style protest culture than like a breed of religious fundamentalism. “With their craving for ‘safe spaces,’” writes the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, “their revulsion against rational discussion (not to mention Halloween), their fundamentally illiberal and indeed irrational state of mind, the protesters strike me…as the natural heirs of the Puritans who founded the British colonies in New England.”

At the very least, these stories are read as symptoms of a campus free speech problem that is increasingly accepted as fact in our shared political consciousness. Last April, Andrew Scheer, now the federal Conservative leader, bemoaned that “campuses are no longer the bastions of free speech that they once were,” and said that a Conservative government would find ways to defund universities that failed to foster and protect free speech. (Never mind that post-secondary funding is mostly a provincial matter.) The enormous cultural appetite for depictions of our universities as repressive, ideological, and totalitarian is reflected in the ascendance of Jordan Peterson, the U of T psychology professor whose claim that he was being silenced by the university made him an international ­celebrity. Such incidents have started to self-­replicate: after being censured for showing a TVO clip featuring Peterson, Wilfrid Laurier teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd herself became a free speech cause célèbre, and invited Goldy to her campus, who was then censured—and so on.

But to what extent does reality accord with the populist portrayal of the university as ruled by a junta of “social justice warriors”? Peter MacKinnon’s University Commons Divided: Exploring Debate and Dissent on Campus is the first Canadian scholarly monograph to address free speech on our campuses. MacKinnon, president emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan, brings his perspective as a lawyer and seasoned administrator to bear on many of these controversies. At stake in these conversations, he argues, is not merely the reputations of our schools, the funding of academic work, or the education of our students. The vision of the university as a cultural node of free expression, as an agora—a “gathering place” and theatre for an exchange of ideas essential to democratic vitality—is now, MacKinnon believes, under attack.

For MacKinnon, the question we must answer is whether these campus controversies are isolated incidents, potholes on the freeway to ever greater inclusivity, or part of a systemic erosion of liberal values within higher education. But it’s worth considering how the university came to be construed as the protector of free speech in modern liberal democracies, and whether it is even capable of performing such a function. Recent years have produced an enormous amount of discussion on whether universities have succeeded or failed at this mission. Less commonly discussed is whether “free expression” should be the mission in the first place.

The extent to which we have accepted “free speech” as the raison of the university was evident in the media’s treatment of Lindsay Shepherd. The Wilfrid Laurier TA found herself at the centre of the most incendiary campus free speech story of last year after showing, in a tutorial, a video in which Jordan Peterson refused to use non-binary gender pronouns. “Shepherd’s ordeal,” the Toronto Star wrote in a representative editorial, “underlines why it’s so important to safeguard the role of universities as places that provide the maximum possible opportunity to exchange ideas and as spaces for those who would challenge conventional wisdom.” The general idea here seems uncontroversial enough. Certainly, one would expect no argument from Peter MacKinnon, who believes that “freedom of expression is the first principle of the university’s mission.”

This idea is repeated often enough to have become a pervasive cultural cliché. Thankfully, we do not have to speculate about the missions of our universities, since these institutions provide us with explicit mission statements. The University of Saskatchewan, where MacKinnon served as president, presents the following mission statement:

The University of Saskatchewan advances the aspirations of the people of the province and beyond through interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to discovering, teaching, sharing, integrating, preserving, and applying knowledge, including the creative arts, to build a rich cultural community. An innovative, accessible, and welcoming place for students, educators, and researchers from around the world, we serve the public good by connecting discovery, teaching, and outreach, by promoting diversity and meaningful change, and by preparing students for enriching careers and fulfilling lives as engaged global citizens.

The document goes on to outline eleven different principles and five values. Nowhere in this material does the university mention freedom of speech or freedom of expression. Nor is the U of S an outlier in this regard. The official mission statements of McGill, Queen’s, Western, and most other Canadian universities are silent on the freedom of expression. ((The University of Toronto’s statement is unusual insofar as it does mention the freedom of speech (alongside academic freedom and freedom of research) as “the most crucial of all human rights” within the university context.))

Free expression is likewise not recognized as part of the university’s mission by the governments who fund it. For instance, the Strategic Mandate Agreements between the province of Ontario and its universities spell out the role of these institutions, their measures of success, and how they will be funded. The agreements address jobs, innovation, and economic development; teaching and learning; and student population. Freedom of expression is neither mentioned nor measured.

Why is freedom of expression so conspicuously absent from these official documents? The first possible answer is that it is the fundamental precondition for the practice of higher education—so obviously important that it doesn’t even need to be said. Sticklers for logic will recognize this as a false syllogism, where the university’s “mission” is to create the conditions that allowed it to exist in the first place. More concretely, this idea is troubled by the existence of excellent universities, such as National University of Singapore, that thrive in the absence of protected free speech.

But there is a more convincing, and obvious, answer: Students do not attend university to be exposed to different viewpoints, but to receive instruction in a subject. Astronomy students do not pay tuition to be exposed to the idea that the Earth is flat; education in history need not include instruction in how slavery or the Holocaust did not occur; an English major doesn’t need a primer on why Shakespeare was not the author of Hamlet. University students acquire knowledge of the ­disciplinary norms that govern the production of research in their fields, and (in the ideal scenario) contribute to the creation of new knowledge themselves.

While the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects flat earthers, Holocaust deniers, and “Oxfordians” (those who contend that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, penned the greatest works in our language), these ideas should not be guaranteed a place on campus. ((The extent to which the Charter protects Holocaust denialism in educational contexts is contested. In 1984, Jim Keegstra was charged with hate speech and lost his teaching certificate for teaching high school students that the Holocaust did not occur. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction in R. v. Keegstra (1990). Curiously, free speech absolutists have yet to denounce what they must interpret as an infringement of Keegstra’s rights.)) Academic freedom is in fact rooted in what Universities Canada terms “rigorous standards for enquiry” that reject those perspectives. The literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish argues that the real-world effect of such “rigorous standards” is to limit speech, not perpetuate it. The institutional mechanisms of the academy are set up to operate as gatekeepers of knowledge and uphold disciplinary boundaries—to offer distinctions between what counts as knowledge in given fields and what does not. Editorial boards, dissertation committees, and peer review processes do not exist to affirm the validity of every single idea: in fact, they exist to do something like the opposite.

In the public sphere, those who frame their case against the university in free speech terms are setting these institutions up for an argument they cannot win. Research universities are established for the production of research, not the production of “speech,” and teaching involves educating students in the research methodologies, standards, and protocols that govern the production of knowledge.

Cultural conservatives also like to claim that modern universities have forgotten how to make quality-based critical judgments—that humanities professors are all “postmodern relativists” now, and that these same professors have become intolerant of the “free speech” of all who do not share that view. This argument is self-contradictory in two ways. First, it claims that professors’ “relativism”—their rejection of objective standards for judgment—has made them too judgmental, a contradiction in terms. Second, it ignores that the conservative’s own free speech absolutism is the most relativistic position one could possibly hold. Free speech advocates start from the position that we can never apprehend the final truth, which is precisely why we must protect speech we disagree with or find ludicrous. What appears right today could turn out to be wrong tomorrow. Thus, free speech absolutism refuses to take quality, offensiveness, truth, or any other characteristic into account in its determination that all speech must be equally protected.

The social justice-oriented academic, on the other hand, has rejected the relativism that is at the heart of the cultural conservative’s argument for free speech. Her refusal to accept the premise that all speech is equal, and her claiming of the right to make quality-based judgments allows her to repudiate as unjustifiable particular kinds of utterance she deems oppressive. The question of where to draw the line is up for debate, but at least this view acknowledges the existence of standards.

Of course, it was not only denizens of the extreme right who bought the free speech interpretation of the Lindsay Shepherd affair.  And, almost as quickly, the case became a lightning rod for concerns about the erosion of academic freedom. The Times Higher Education headline described the Shepherd case as an “Academic Freedom Row,” while Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, argued in a CBC Opinion column that the “fundamental problem” with the backlash against Laurier was that it didn’t go far enough in “defending Shepherd’s academic freedom or freedom of expression. Many of the academics who spoke out were appalled at how the university reacted, not the fact that introducing a controversial issue in a class was perceived as a problem in the first place.” Laurier itself seemed to accept this basic premise: in her subsequent apology to Shepherd, Laurier president Deborah MacLatchy insisted that “Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

Shepherd’s treatment by her own teachers (which she recorded and shared with the media) was scandalous. Even more alarming than the extreme ideology on display was the fact that Laurier employees felt that such rhetoric was the appropriate language in which to conduct professional affairs. But lost in the subsequent uproar was the distinction between academic freedom and the freedom of speech. More than one commentator echoed Emmett Macfarlane’s claim about the violation of Shepherd’s “academic freedom or freedom of expression”—which suggests that those two concepts are interchangeable, as though “academic freedom” is simply the name we give to “free speech” when it is employed by academics.

But academic freedom and the freedom of speech are not the same thing. Indeed, the Universities Canada statement on academic freedom goes out of its way to highlight the difference:

Unlike the broader conception of freedom of speech, academic freedom must be based on institutional integrity, rigorous standards for enquiry and institutional autonomy, which allows universities to set their research and educational priorities.

The key word here is “institutional,” which roots this freedom in the pursuit of institutional priorities, namely research and education. The Canadian Association of University Teachers similarly states that instructors must have the right to “fulfill their functions.” “Academic freedom,” then, refers to academics’ freedom to do their job, not to the inviolable freedom to spout off in front of students.

The idea that students in a one- or two-year MA program are entitled to academic freedom is also a dubious proposition, since the principles of academic freedom were explicitly linked to the institution of tenure. The most influential modern document outlining academic freedom—the one underlying both the Universities Canada and the faculty association statements—was the 1940 “Statement of principles on academic freedom and tenure,” from the American Association of University Professors. The logic is that tenured professors needed to be treated like appointed judges: just as Supreme Court judges are hired by a president but not accountable to him (yet), tenured academics should be independent of the administrators and trustees who hired them. Academics, the 1940 document states, are “entitled to full freedom in research and the publication of their results” without fear of reprisal (even if those findings fly in the face of institutional or political authority); “freedom in the classroom” (with the explicit caveat that professors “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial subject matter that has no relation to their subject”); and freedom “from institutional censorship or discipline” when it comes to what is sometimes called “extramural” speech: that is, when professors operate as freelancers in the public sphere, often outside their areas of specialization.

Reasonable people might disagree on this point about tenure: surely graduate students should also have the freedom to produce research unencumbered by political considerations (though Shepherd’s own ability to conduct research was never in question). But in either case, the official Canadian statements clearly tie that freedom to an institutionally regulated function: i.e., teaching the curriculum.

While professors have invoked academic freedom to excuse all forms of outrageous behaviour, the concept was never intended to license irrelevant or politicized material in the classroom. Outside of the classroom, of course, academics can invoke the freedom of speech, along with everyone else. As Louis Menand explains in his book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, “We don’t approve when the chemistry professor gives anti-war speeches (or pro-war speeches, for that matter) in chemistry class, and we may intervene, because we feel that the professor has impermissibly mixed her politics and her job. But we choose not to make it a problem when she gives such speeches out in the quad or on the street.” Shepherd, of course, did give speeches in the quad and on the street (as well as on Twitter, in the media, and at other institutions), which puts the lie to the claim that Laurier had violated her Charter rights.

Facts are one thing, but rhetoric is something else. In contemporary debate, “free speech” has become the ideal weapon for cultural conservatives to use when attacking progressive political attitudes they associate with the university. And why not? It’s much easier, and more politically effective, to cast oneself as being “for” free speech than “against,” say, trans rights. The free speech absolutist maintains the canard that he is politically neutral—that he has no political agenda of his own—even as he tries to eliminate the sources of speech he deems offensive. Thus, after asserting that the solution to troubling speech is more speech, conservatives propose defunding universities, creating “postmodern lexicon detectors,” or other means of limiting speech they don’t like. If the “free speech” crusaders were truly interested in speech, as opposed to politics, what explains the singular obsession with the paucity of conservative voices on the campus? Why does it never occur to the free speech absolutist to care about the paucity of Marxist voices on Bay Street or in the editorial pages of our major newspapers? The first answer is that most of those who invoke free speech are only concerned with it as a means to score political points.

The second is that there really is a paucity of conservative voices on campus, and (in some cases) an alarming tendency toward intolerance and ideological fundamentalism. Last June, the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU), which operates under an “anti-oppressive framework,” passed a motion condemning Canada Day as “an act of colonialism” and barring any celebration of our national holiday in the Student Union building. Then there was Henry Parada’s resignation as director of Ryerson’s school of social work (he remains a professor there), after he left a meeting at a moment when—in the words of the school’s Black Liberation Collective branch—“Black folks were giving praise to a young black woman professor at a critical and vulnerable time.” The collective characterized his leaving the meeting as a “violent act of anti-Blackness, misogyny, and misogynoir.” We are not privy to the backstage conversations that led to these events. By the time these incidents reach the public, however, the message is clear enough: the academy is now so intolerant that celebrations of our national holiday are prohibited in respected institutions (imagine the outrage that would greet a conservative student group trying to censure on-campus protests against Canada Day), and that leaving a meeting at the wrong moment could cost you professionally and get you labelled an example of “toxic masculinity,” as Henry Parada was.

The underlying rationale in such cases is that the promotion of free expression must be subservient to the promotion of safety. Indeed, the idea of “safe spaces” is perhaps the most hotly contested term in the present debates. In University Commons Divided, Peter MacKinnon approaches “safe spaces” through the issue of controversial (and perhaps offensive) speakers on campus. The question is: Would the invitation of a Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, or Richard Spencer create an “unsafe space” on campus, as student groups frequently argue?

The question comes down to what we mean by “safe.” MacKinnon urges us to distinguish between two competing understandings of “safe space.” He comes out broadly in favour of the first—that is, a safe space “rooted in the experience of identifiable groups or minorities…who have experienced the trauma of discrimination [and] need an opportunity—a safe space—in which to come together to share their experiences without fear of harassment, criticism, or judgment.” But MacKinnon argues that we should regard the second definition of “safe space” with suspicion. This is when

the safe space must extend outward and into the public domain, along with its protections against interference or intrusion from those who hold different views or whose ways of expressing them may cause unease…If safety…extends to physical safety combined with an expectation of civility and mutual respect, it is compatible with freedom of expression. Extending the meaning of safety more broadly (as in the claim that inviting Ann Coulter to the University of Ottawa threatened to create an unsafe space on campus) is incompatible with that freedom and a threat to the vitality of the commons.

As a legal scholar, MacKinnon understands “safety” primarily in legal (i.e. physical) terms that imply a neat distinction between words and physical effects. Insofar as speakers are not inciting an active call to violence, MacKinnon believes, they should be free to express themselves. MacKinnon’s approach here, and in the book generally, will please classical liberals, and he brings a clear, analytical rigour to bear on the controversies under discussion. His arguments make sense on their own terms. But University Commons Divided does not make any serious effort to persuade scholars aligned with anti-oppression frameworks, nor does it situate these campus controversies within the highly politicized media context in which they gain social force, and in which indiscriminate speech can in fact produce concerns for an individual or group’s physical safety. It’s worth thinking about how the enlightenment liberal values MacKinnon champions are used to provide cover for nostalgic (if not downright regressive) politics and a seething anti-intellectualism. One yearns for some recognition from MacKinnon that, in the broader cultural conversation (the one unfolding not only in the op-ed pages, but on Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube) the default use of his own classical liberal arguments has been to attack and undermine the social authority of the institution toward which he has dedicated his life.

Of course, social-justice aligned scholars might also reflect on how their rhetoric and methods work at cross-purposes with their actual goals. Those affiliated with anti-oppression frameworks often frame the presence of controversial speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson as questioning “their very right to exist.” Once the threat is construed in such existential terms, what options remain except to protest, chant, disrupt, and silence this annihilating discourse? When successful, such protests then model a response to be taken up by students who have not been oppressed. And due to the nebulous boundary separating emotional safety from a generalized intolerance of discomfort, the tactics of the anti-oppressive framework will be—and indeed are already starting to be—adopted by comparatively privileged students who discover that their psychological safety matters too.

For understandable reasons, calls to redress (the very real) systemic inequalities are often framed as an appeal to safety. But the rhetoric of safety makes it difficult to negotiate or compromise. Indeed, when deployed in the public sphere (as “law and order” Republicans well understand) an appeal to safety is an almost unassailable warrant for belligerence. Perhaps a more surprising analogy is to be found between the most extreme rhetoric of the social justice-allied scholars and that of the Israeli hard-liners whom they frequently denounce and seek to boycott: “We need a safe space of our own and cannot recognize the rights of those who would refuse our very right to exist,” the thinking goes. Intolerance on campus does not deserve a tolerant response, but a critical question is how far one goes in curbing, silencing, or restricting that intolerant speech or action.

To many beyond the campus gates, the refusal to compromise, combined with the narrow spectrum of acceptable behaviour and language, and the impulse to shame and excommunicate, often sounds like a different form of religious fundamentalism: indeed, it sounds like puritanism.

If Teresa M. Bejan is to be believed, however, the problem is not that campus radicals are behaving like puritans, but that they are not behaving like the right kind of puritans. In seeking to bar offensive speech and terminate administrators and faculty members who fail to meet their standards, anti-oppression advocates have essentially abandoned all hope of persuasion or conversion. In theological terms, they have given up on their opponent’s souls. For Bejan, Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century Puritan leader, emerges as an unlikely exemplar of “radical tolerance,” precisely for his refusal to cut his enemies off in this way; indeed, his evangelical commitments forced him to tolerate almost anything.

One of the benefits of historical scholarship, as Bejan demonstrates in Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, is the discovery that some of our most urgent contemporary debates aren’t as new as we think. Bejan’s book is not particularly interested in the debates now raging on our university campuses, or on university campuses of any era: Her milieu, instead, is the intellectual environment of America’s colonial settlement, when spiritual and political leaders had to make on-the-ground decisions about just how much dissent their communities could handle. Mere Civility suggests that careful analysis of the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Roger Williams, and John Locke may cast some indirect light on the present culture wars, and that colonial America, riven by sectarian infighting, may have something to teach us about tolerance.

Seventeenth-century America was a hotbed of competing fundamentalisms. The Protestant Reformation, aided by technological and social innovations—the rise of the printing press, the breakdown of state censorship, and the rise of literacy—had given rise not only to the Puritans, but to Quakers, Baptists, Ranters, Familists, Adamites, and Lutherans. The battle lines between these denominations may have been primarily theological, but the line dividing verbal from physical safety was no clearer for them as it is for us. Perusing this history, one realizes that adherents of these precarious faiths felt slights and threats against their spiritual identity with the same intensity that precarious racial, sexual, and religious minorities experience today. These early Americans sincerely felt as though their eternal souls hung in the balance of their ability to practise their own faith. Religious persecution, they felt, represented a threat to their very existence.

Even when it didn’t present a mortal threat, the behaviour of rival denominations could be exasperating. Roger Williams (1603-1683), the Puritan minister and founder of the Colony of Rhode Island, presided over a settlement frequently disturbed by various kinds of Quaker protest. These seventeenth-century Quakers, Bejan writes, “were notorious for going naked in public ‘for a sign,’ as well as interrupting others’ worship by banging pots and pans or shouting down the minister. In one instance, a Quaker man reportedly took off his pants in an Anglican church and lay down on the communion table” as an act of vandalism. Had the Puritans made the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic, and forged a new home amidst unimaginable hardship in the wilderness, only to have their religious services mocked, disrupted, and drowned out by protesters?

The answer, at least in Williams’s case, was yes. He declined to use his authority as magistrate to imprison, silence, or expel those responsible for “persecution of the tongue.” Instead, he would provide the conditions in which those arguments, disagreements, and debates could unfold.

Williams emerges as the hero of Bejan’s book for evolving a “radical theory of toleration” that the author terms “mere civility.” While Hobbes called for “civil silence,” a polity where the sovereign prohibits citizens from particularly intense forms of public dispute, and Locke called for “civil charity,” one where citizens are encouraged to “love and respect other people” for who they are, Williams believed that total civil agreement—positively or negatively enforced—would never be possible. Therefore, in The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience (1644), he argued that religious toleration must be extended to all Protestant sects, Jews, Muslims, “Pagans” (Indigenous Americans) and even “anti-Christians” (i.e., Catholics). Some have interpreted Williams’s call for the freedom of “consciences and worships” as the first official recognition of the separation of church and state; others (including scholar Martha Nussbaum) have gone further, finding in Williams an early advocate for John Rawls’s “justice as fairness.”

But Williams is an awkward poster boy for modern multiculturalism. Indeed, he frequently denounced those he considered heathens in the strongest possible terms. “It is notoriously knowne what conscience all Pagans make of Lying, stealing, Whoring, Murthering…and as for Drunckennes allso,” he wrote to the General Court of Massachusetts Bay in 1656. He frequently railed against Indian “divell worship,” and mocked “the foolish Custome of all barbarous Nations to paint and figure their Faces and Bodies (as it hath been to our shame and grief wee may remember it some of our Fore-Fathers).” Such statements emphasize the “mere” in Williams’s conception of “mere civility.” As Bejan, an associate professor of political theory at Oxford (she was formerly an assistant professor at the University of Toronto), explains:

Mere civility explicitly permitted much of what Williams’s modern-day revivers want to rule out. It certainly did not forbid peremptory contradiction, dogmatic and unwanted counsels, expressions of disgust, or sharp rebukes. Although it placed some constraints on overt expressions of contempt, it nevertheless left individuals free to show their disapproval of others’ most sensitive and sacred commitments in other ways.

Mere civility, for Williams, did not require sincerity—i.e. it didn’t matter if you only pretended to tolerate someone’s views so long as you tolerated them—and was in fact perfectly compatible with “negative judgments, deep disapproval, and disgust.” This conception of civility grew out of his evangelical commitments. If you are going to convert an unregenerate soul, the heathen must first be made to understand that he is a heathen. Williams believed that each Christian bore some responsibility for disseminating the Gospel, which necessarily entailed implicit or explicit “disapproval of others’ most sensitive and sacred commitments.” At the same time, to “cut off” the heathen or drive him out of the community is to abandon any hope of conversion. The best a political community could aspire to, in Williams’s view, was a situation in which all groups are free to express their disapproval of the other, with the ultimate aim of persuading and converting those outside the fold. Total conversion was an impossibility, but that didn’t remove the responsibility to try. The purpose of this conversation is to keep the conversation going.

On the contemporary campus, there are some who construe stopping the conversation as a goal in itself. Strong voices on the political left and right appeal to a Hobbesian ethos of “civil silencing,” the muting of transgressive speech. University administrators are called upon to train or discipline insufficiently “woke” professors, while conservative political leaders flirt with the idea of defunding universities. Those who abandon the possibility of civil dialogue invite the sole remaining alternative, which is the exercise of brute power.

Roger Williams provides a different model for negotiating our most intractable disagreements. Rather than aiming higher, toward an absolute attainment of our ideals of free speech or social justice, Williams would have us aim lower, toward a “mere civility” that would keep the conversation going. “Tolerance,” as Bejan reminds us, is “the willingness to coexist with those people and views one finds most contemptible.” It’s easy to coexist with those who share our views: the trouble arises when we are confronted by those who would defile everything we hold sacred. The question, then, is whether twenty-first-century citizens—on left and right—are capable of equalling the tolerance of a seventeenth-century religious fanatic. Faced with instances of deeply offensive, derogatory, or racist speech, Williams would permit condemnation, profound disapproval, and expressions of disgust. All he would ask is that we do not give up on each other’s souls. .

Ira Wells teaches literature and cultural criticism at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in The Walrus, The New Republic, American Quarterly, and elsewhere.

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